An Evening of Art at Arkansas’s Waverly Plantation

Historic Waverly Plantation in Crittenden County, Arkansas has suffered from the fact that it shares its name with a much better-known plantation home near Columbus, Mississippi, which was built in the 1850’s. By contrast, we are not sure of the age of the elaborate Greek Revival mansion at Waverly, Arkansas, as the dates of 1908 and 1913 are encountered in articles. A Memphian named Fontaine Martin Sr. leased the land from a deputy sheriff in Crittenden County in 1913, and decided to live on the property full-time in 1915, but by his recollection, the house was already there, although in what form or to what extent is unclear. Adding more confusion to the mix is the rumor that an older Waverly Plantation existed on the opposite side of the levee from the current home. I have been told at least once that the house was disassembled at its old location and reassembled in its current location, which could make the house, in theory, much older still.

What is clear is that the Arkansas Waverly, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a treasure, and for the last several years it has been the site of the annual Art on the Levee, a fundraiser for DeltaARTS, the local arts non-profit in West Memphis.

While I had not been able to attend the event last year, I wasthis year, and I am thrilled to have been there, as the house has been sold, and it is unclear whether Art on the Levee will be able to be held there going forward.

At least half of the charm of the event was the beautiful house itself, which really consists of three stories if one counts the basement. Every room was beautifully furnished and decorated, with art works prominently displayed. Lemonade was being served on the front porch as a guitar player played and sang. Most of the art works were displayed in the basement, where there was of course a considerable crowd.

In back, tables and chairs had been set around a large swimming pool, and a stage had been set for the musicians, a string band from Memphis. I was really surprised that a blues band had not been chosen, as the scenery greatly suggested blues, but at any rate, the musicians never played during the hour and a half I was there. The main food was provided by the Soul Fish Cafe, and consisted of catfish, which was actually quite delicious. But what really stood out to me were the freshly-made fried pies from Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, a place I had driven past many times but never eaten at. I’m used to the fried pies from Yoder’s in Whiteville that are sold at Bozo’s in Mason, and they are good, but these were even better, with a flakier crust, perhaps because they were being served the same day they were made. After getting thoroughly full, I wandered the environs, snapping photos.

Although I am saddened by the prospect of the Art on the Levee having to move to another location in 2020, I am at least glad that I got this final chance to see the grand and historic old home before the new owners take it over. A check of the Fletcher Creek Quadrangle map from 1966 shows that at one time Waverly had a church, a cemetery and an airstrip. I saw no trace of any of them on my visit, but it might be worth a trip back to see if I can find the cemetery, as long as I can do so without infringing on private property.

The Ruins of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, Amanca, Arkansas

West Memphis, with its dog racing track/casino and industries obscures the fact that Crittenden County, Arkansas was once Delta country, with plantations and sharecropper shacks. The road toward Waverly, south of West Memphis reminds you of that fact, and in fact resembles the long, flat roads of the Mississippi Delta. Here and there a silo or white-frame church is visible across the flat fields, divided by occasional bayous lined with trees and brush. To the right about four miles south of West Memphis, however, I came upon the ruins of a church that looked historic. A modern Pentecostal church had been built beside it, and presumably the new church owns the building and grounds, but there was no sign of the name of the older church, or when it had been built. With the sun going down, the old white structure looked majestic, despite its deteriorated condition, and I would have liked to have investigated it more closely, but I soon found that bees or wasps had made a nest in the structure, and were literally pouring out of it. With discretion being the better part of valor, I beat a hasty retreat.

The mystery as to what church it was I ultimately solved by looking at the Fletcher Lake Quadrangle map from 1966 of the United States Geological Survey. It showed that the church was called St. John’s Church, and that there was also a cemetery on the site. When the map was reprinted in 2010, only the cemetery is shown.

As the event at Waverly I was on my way to had started at 5 PM, I decided it was best to be on my way, but I captured some photos of the church, as it will likely eventually collapse from neglect. The community where that church was is shown on the 1966 map as Amanca, Arkansas, but there seems little of that community either nowadays. Evidently, it is just a name.

The Remnants of Hulbert, Arkansas

Crittenden County, Arkansas, despite being across the river from Memphis, has struggled to develop over the years. Although there were frequent attempts to develop a town on the west side of the river from Memphis, few of those efforts succeeded. Hopefield, the first town on the Arkansas side, was burned in the Civil War. Although it was rebuilt, it ultimately became unstable, due to changes in the Mississippi River, and apparently its site disappeared beneath the waters. Its nearby rival Mound City avoided that fate, but ended up on an oxbow lake called Danner Lake, removed from the river altogether. Almost no trace of that place remains. Later, in the 1880’s, Memphis papers mentioned a park called West End Park in a new town called West Memphis, but that location was probably not the city we know of today, and I have been unable to determine exactly where it was.

Instead, the first community to actually gain a degree of permanence was a railroad station called Hulbert, at some distance from the Mississippi River. It apparently consisted of a store, post office, railroad station and some houses, and eventually became substantial enough to form a school district (in Arkansas, school systems are formed by local communities and not by counties).

Hulbert was done in as well, but not by the river, or economic failure. Rather, the Bragg Lumber Company, taking advantage of the demand for famous Memphis hardwood lumber, formed a community in the early 1920’s which was initially named Bragg, Arkansas. Finding that the lumber from Bragg did not sell that well, the company sought to link its products to the famous hardwood lumber of the larger city of Memphis across the river, and thus renamed their new city West Memphis in 1926. So rapidly did the new city grow that it was soon nicknamed the “Wonder City.” Not long thereafter, the school system was renamed the Hulbert-West Memphis School District, and the day came when Hulbert was annexed into the city limits of West Memphis.

Today, few traces of Hulbert remain, but the ones that do are worth seeing. A few store buildings, noticeably the large two-story store facing the railroad that once belonged to the Dabbs family. Unfortunately, it is now a private residence, and cannot be toured, but it has been fully restored, and some whimsical decorations exist in the yard. At least one other building seems to date from that era. Sadly, new buildings have been allowed to spring up that have nothing in common with the original community or its aesthetics.

Delta Easter: Slow and Easy Is The Pace in Pace

I recalled Pace, Mississippi being the site of some degree of controversy in my younger days back in the 1980’s. Like the similar town of Tchula, Mississippi, the transition from white government to Black government did not sit well with some of the town’s white residents. I recall that some of the controversy was over the renaming of Pace streets for prominent Black citizens. But Pace today is a fairly sleepy and quiet town, although with several juke joints, probably one that jumps late at night on weekends. The local supermarket is vacant, and the downtown consists mainly of clubs- Club Escape, the Brass Rail and Bradley’s Place. The men sitting in front of the Brass Rail were friendly and amenable to my taking photos of the jukes, and told me a little bit about the town. There might have been live music at one time in Pace, but nowadays the clubs strictly have DJ’s, I was told. Although food was being grilled outside, I had decided to have dinner in Cleveland before heading back to Clarksdale for the blues show, and as it was nearly 5 PM, I got back on the road toward Cleveland.

Delta Easter: An Abandoned Church Near Symonds

The map showed a road called Pemble Road, a direct route from Merigold to a community called Symonds, which I had never been to, and which had enough streets on the map to suggest that it was worth a visit. Unfortunately, the map did not show that Pemble Road was gravel, and the further west I headed, the worse its condition got. Past a crossroads at Oak Tree Road, there was a farmhouse, out from which came two large dogs, chasing my car and barking furiously. I did not notice that the road was increasingly rutted and muddy, and I soon found myself hopelessly bogged down in a mudhole. The man whose house it was soon came out and offered to try to help pull me out of the hole, explaining to me that even if I hadn’t gotten stuck, it would have done me no good to have gone on, as the bridge was out ahead, and there was no way to get to Symonds from there.

He went to look for a rope, but soon another truck pulled up, driven by a deputy sheriff and his wife, who were on their way to a fishing hole and did not know the bridge was out. He had a chain on the back of his truck, and with that, he was able to pull me out of the mud. I thanked both men profusely, and then headed back to Oak Tree Road, and, giving up any ideas of going to Symonds, I headed for Pace instead.

The man who had first come to my rescue had mentioned an abandoned church on Oak Tree Road, and I soon found it near its intersection with Pemble Road. There was no indication of its name, but it seemed an old and historic place.

Delta Easter: Desecration of Po Monkey’s, One of the Holy Sites of the Blues

From Drew, I decided to head across to Merigold. I had wanted to see Po Monkey’s juke joint for the first time in real life, and possibly eat at Crawdad’s. I was disappointed on both fronts, as Crawdad’s is not open on Sundays, and Po Monkey’s proved to have been stripped bare. As I told someone later, it would have been better not to have seen it at all than to have seen it like it is now.

I had heard after Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry’s death that the family had decided to have an auction, but I had no idea of the extent. Everything both inside and outside was stripped away and sold, even the signs on the outside. The historic marker seems ironic in front of a boarded-up and stripped building, with draconian “No Trespassing” signs everywhere. The only decorations at the building seem to be votive offerings that fans have left behind, as a sort of commemorative shrine.

I have been told that “it’s complicated,” but given the power of organizations like the Blues Foundation and/or Delta State University, I cannot understand why this most important place could not have been saved. Even now, the building should be restored and redecorated, even if like Club Ebony in Indianola, it is only open at certain special times for special concerts or events. There are people worldwide who would be willing to donate to such an effort. It only needs an organized and co-ordinated effort to make it happen.

Delta Easter: Mattson, Mississippi and True Vine Church

Mattson is a community which would seem to be the center of a large plantation. That being said, it is laid out like a beautiful village, around a large park or square, with a large church or chapel, and all of the houses painted white, these probably existing for the farm managers. While I could find little online about the history of the community, I did find that a post office was established at Mattson on July 3, 1897, so that would seem to be the founding of the farm and the town. Behind the large chapel, I came upon the Truevine Missionary Baptist Church, surrounded by fields and a cemetery.

Delta Easter: St. Paul Church, Hopson, Mississippi

Just to the west of the current Highway 49 beyond Clarksdale is the old Highway 49, the road that runs past Hopson Commissary and the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale. It is an old road indeed, passing old churches and small Delta towns and plantation centers. South of the crossroads at Hopson is this iconic church, which looks a little the worse for wear. It is not clear whether this congregation still exists at all, but the church looks old and historic.

Catfish’s Big Day in Belzoni

I had no phone service at all while I was at Swiftown, but as I approached Belzoni, my phone started ringing. Blues musician Duwayne Burnside, for whom I play keyboards, was calling frantically from the World Catfish Festival in Belzoni because we were about to go on stage in less than a half-hour. Getting to Belzoni was no big deal, because I was only about five miles away. But what I hadn’t counted on was how gridlocked everything was because of the festival. Hayden Street, the main street of the town, was blocked off in the downtown area, and it was only with great difficulty that I was able to find a way to drive behind the stage area. Fortunately, Duwayne had talked to the festival people and I was allowed to park in the sheriff’s department parking lot at the Courthouse.

A blues artist named Mississippi Marshall was performing a solo acoustic set on the Humphreys County Courthouse steps as we unloaded our equipment. The weather was grey and overcast, but the rain had held off, and it was warm, so there was a fairly large crowd on the courthouse grounds, and even more along the downtown streets where vendors had set up tents. Marshall’s performance was followed by a Miss Catfish Pageant, and then we got to go on stage, set up our instruments and perform. As for food, there was, of course, catfish. And pretty good catfish it was too, provided by Larry’s Catfish House in Itta Bena, some 30 miles up the road.

As the Blackwater Trio went up on stage next, I took the time to walk down Hayden Street, looking at the various stores and vendors. Belzoni, like all Delta towns, had suffered hard times in the modern era, but they had experienced something of a renaissance with the advent of aquaculture, specifically farm-raised catfish. As a result, the downtown area was dotted with various catfish statues, painted in brilliant colors. But even the catfish industry had grown old in Belzoni now. Many of the statues were located in front of vacant, decaying storefronts. Even the posh digs of the Catfish Institute proved to be vacant- the institute relocated to the “big city” of Jackson some years ago. A few clothing shops were having “Catfish Festival sales” but otherwise, the downtown area seemed to be in poor shape, despite the crowds of people walking around.

Around the corner on Jackson Street, things seemed a little livelier, because of a place called Belzoni Sports Bar & Grill, which was actually the club we were scheduled to play at later in the evening. The place was a sports bar, restaurant and pool hall, and already had some people inside. A man was passing out flyers on the street for Duwayne Burnside’s performance there later in the evening.

Down the next street, which led back toward the courthouse and the main stage, I came upon a beautiful brick building, with the Coca-Cola logo worked into its facade on two sides. Although it was now being used as a daycare, I imagine that it had once been the Coca-Cola bottling plant for Belzoni.

When I returned to the courthouse, I managed to get my equipment loaded into the car, and then drove around through the neighborhood behind the courthouse along George Lee Street (the name commemorates a Black man who was murdered in Belzoni in 1955 for organizing a voter registration drive) and around to Jackson Street, where we were to play. But now the rain had begun to fall, and by the time I began to load into the club, it was pouring down.

Despite the rain outside, the little sports bar was soon jam-packed as we played. Their posters announced several upcoming blues shows, and it seems as if they are going to try to keep the live music going in Belzoni, which is a good thing. Afterwards, I got quite wet putting my instrument and amp back into the car, but I was soon on my way through the storm up Highway 7 toward Itta Bena, Greenwood, and hopefully dinner.

Slow Times In Swiftown

About halfway between Morgan City and Belzoni on Mississippi Highway 7 is a wide spot in the road called Swiftown. It consists of a couple of residential streets, a community center, a church and some abandoned business buildings.

There probably was never a whole lot to Swiftown, but clearly its better days are behind it. Still, the abandoned buildings have a rather historic look about them, and there was a remarkable quietness about the place on an early Saturday morning.